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Personal data risk means NHS Highland won't release Caithness coronavirus numbers


By Alan Hendry

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A Wick man who wants NHS Highland to release precise numbers of Covid-19 cases in Caithness says he remains dissatisfied with the way his concerns have been dealt with.

Keith Banks this week received an apology from the health board for a delay in responding to his call for an internal review. But the board reiterated its opinion that the information sought by Mr Banks would constitute personal data and "there is a significant risk that the release of the data could potentially lead to the names of those affected being identified".

Mr Banks is taking the matter to the Scottish Information Commissioner, the independent official responsible for promoting and enforcing the law covering right of access to recorded information held by public authorities.

He maintains that NHS Highland has not complied with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Mr Banks made a Freedom of Information request on August 23 as he wanted to know the precise numbers of people in Caithness who had tested positive since the start of the pandemic and also how many in the county had died as a result of coronavirus.

The response from NHS Highland's Freedom of Information team, dated October 2, said fewer than 15 positive cases of Covid-19 with a Caithness postcode could be identified between March 1 and August 23. It also said fewer than 10 deaths mentioning Covid-19 on the death certificate could be identified in Caithness over the same period.

Keith Banks is taking the matter to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Keith Banks is taking the matter to the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The response added that, due to the low numbers of patients involved, no further specific information could be given. It said the information being sought by Mr Banks constituted personal data and its disclosure would contravene data protection principles.

Mr Banks lodged a further request with NHS Highland on October 8, asking for the precise number of cases diagnosed in Caithness, together with the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 in the county, between August 24 and October 7.

In its response, dated October 15, NHS Highland said there had been 17 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Caithness during that timescale, and no deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

In each case Mr Banks requested a review of NHS Highland's response. He insisted that it was "not sufficiently transparent".

The health board replied to Mr Banks regarding both requests on November 19 – apologising for the delay, summarising the previous correspondence and setting out why it could not release the information he was seeking.

In each case it said: "We have undertaken a review of our original response issued to you [on October 2 and October 15] and we uphold the response issued to you."

The board told Mr Banks: "We advised in our response that due to the low number of cases in Caithness, we were unable to provide specific detail of the number of patients involved due to the potential risk of identifying those involved.

"We consider that, due to the low numbers of Covid-19 cases in Caithness, this information constitutes personal data and there is a significant risk that the release of the data could potentially lead to the names of those affected being identified. NHS Highland has a duty to protect the confidentiality of individual level data obtained to produce statistics."

NHS Highland added that the information it had released in relation to cases where low numbers were involved was "consistent with the information released by Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland".

It pointed out that information about confirmed cases of Covid-19 at "neighbourhood" level – including seven areas within Caithness – is reported regularly on Public Health Scotland's interactive dashboard.

Mr Banks said: "I remain dissatisfied with the reasons NHS Highland has given for not providing me with the recorded information requested in the original applications. This comes as no surprise to me.

"I will now be submitting fresh applications to the Scottish Information Commissioner, in terms of my contention that NHS Highland has not complied with s1(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

"As I have already stated, it is not competent for the board to rely on s38 (1) (b) to contend that patient confidentiality will be compromised if they disclose the actual numbers as I requested in both applications. I am confident both appeals will be upheld by the commissioner."

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